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Women in Communist Russia 1917-1945

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Si-eun
Term Paper, AP European History Class, May 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Women in Communist Society
II.1 Their Positions in Communist Society
II.1.1 Historical Background
II.1.2 Communist Views toward Women
II.1.3 Women's Equality to Men
II.1.4 Policies of the Bolshevik Government in Favour of Women
II.1.5 Limitation of Women's Equality
II.2 Women's Participation in Politics
II.3 Family in Communist Russia
II.3.1 The Function of the Family in Communist Russia
II.3.2 Alexandra Kollontai's View on the Family
II.3.3 Differences between Lenin and Stalin Concerning Family and Women
II.4 Communist Propaganda Targeted at Women
II.4.1 Encouragement of the Participation on Women in the Revolution
II.4.2 The "Worker-Mother"
II.4.3 Illiteracy
III. Russian Women's Roles in the World Wars
III.1 World War I
III.2 World War II - the Great Patriotic War
IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Communist Russia, established by the Bolsheviks through the Russian Revolution of 1917, was the most radical government in Europe at the time. Its utopian beliefs on how the nation should be run and what values were more important over others were completely deviated from the traditional beliefs held by most nations in Europe. One part of these radical visions the Communists had concerned women. They proposed a whole new idea of family and the roles of women and men.
            Lenin asserted that "the success of a revolution depends on the participation of women." [1] He genuinely valued the support of women and strove to achieve their true emancipation and equality with men. Although his ideologies failed to penetrate deep into all of society, he did succeed in pursuing several policies within his party and the state to improve the living conditions and positions of women in Communist society.
            Communist Russia is best represented by its structure and ideology of Lenin's time. In Russia during Stalin and WWII, the Communist government's original goals to achieve a completely utopian state were degenerated and abused and women were frequently encouraged to embody new kinds of values and hold different beliefs. Moreover, Lenin's policies that had favored the liberation of women and institutions to support women were often cut back by Stalin's bureaucracy.

II. Women in Communist Society

II.1 Their Positions in Communist Society

II.1.1 Historical Background
            During World War I, women had taken roles in society that had originally been those of men, such as working in factories due to the lack of work force in the absence of men. Not only that, they were responsible for taking care of their families and rearing their children while the men fought at war. This gave them a sense of their abilities and how they were able to take on men's roles without much difficulty. Moreover, the Women's Suffrage Movement had secured the most basic rights for women elsewhere in Europe and had laid the foundations for the total emancipation of women.

II.1.2 Communist Views toward Women
            The November Revolution of 1917 proclaimed women's complete economic, political, and sexual equality to men for the first time. Lenin especially was an ardent supporter of women's rights, and asserted that the Communists work to achieve total emancipation of women. Therefore the Bolsheviks, contrary to the rather conservative Mensheviks who often refrained from taking serious action, were eager to work to make women¡¯s liberation a higher priority than it had been.
            In Communist society, women were supposedly equal to men. They were granted the same rights to work, and be paid the same wages as men were. Moreover, because Lenin also idealized political democracy at all levels of society, he saw that women should also be able to participate actively in politics.

II.1.3 Women's Equality to Men
            Women were theoretically considered completely equal to men. Therefore they were no longer expected to withdraw themselves in relationships with men. Men and women were given equal standing in marriage, and women could get divorced easily. Abortion also became legal in November 1920. A woman was not expected to be bound to her husband; she was considered independent. Moreover, women were given rights to own property just like men. They were allowed to hold land and become the head of a household. Also, their wages (at least in theory) equaled that of men.

II.1.4 Policies of the Bolzhevik Government in Favour of Women
            The Bolshevik government under Lenin launched programs and set up facilities to promote women to participate in all aspects of life - economically, politically and socially. Because women were at the time confined to their domestic duties, they were restrained from being actively involved in social life. They were encouraged to work like men in factories but were not exempted from their duties at home to raise children and do housework. In order to get rid of those constraints, the Bolsheviks started to provide certain material support for women. These included providing free meals at school, food and allowances for certain children that needed support, and setting up maternity homes and nurseries that took care of the children while the women worked. These institutions and programs served to lift the burden off women so that they would be able to lead equal lives as men and consequently form equal relationships with men. [2]
            One policy separate from domestic life was the policy on women's education. During the time, women, especially women from the lower classes, were not very well educated and most were illiterate. Because their illiteracy prevented them from achieving equal status with men and actively participating in politics, schools and study groups were set up to reduce illiteracy - women began to educate themselves. [3]

II.1.5 The Limitations of Women's Equality
            However, in reality this "equality" had limitations, and some policies proved unsuccessful. First of all, society was not willing to change the views it held for hundreds of years. Although in theory women were just as able to participate in politics as men, men did not accept this easily and did not actually attempt to encourage the women around them to do so. They pretended to voice women's equality and rights but it was actually just paying lip service to gain the support of women and approval of the leaders who truly advocated women's rights. Moreover, because women had only recently gained their rights and against the will of some men, they were expected to give up those rights during times it was considered necessary. Programs that were organized to support women were first to be sacrificed for the sake of the economy when the nation was not faring well. [4]
            These limitations led to women ultimately not being treated as equal as they should. Women were often paid less than men. Most women were unable to focus on their work as men were because they had a household to maintain at the same time. Women were still discriminated against in the workplace and in recruitment. Their participation in politics did help to voice their rights and opinions, mobilize women in politics and make women aware of what was going on in the state; however, they seldom succeeded in putting their theories to practice as actual laws. The systems created to help women overcome difficulties were not structured well enough and often failed to be run the way they should. Women's participation in politics was also limited; they seldom achieved top ranks in government.
            Moreover, Lenin's New Economic Policy partly reintroduced capitalist elements to rebuild a completely destroyed economy after the civil war. After the civil war, the workers' population had become increasingly exhausted because of war communism and excessive working hours. As a result, men abandoned their families more frequently, in part because the lax divorce laws allowed them to do so. Mothers were left alone to support their families, often without the alimony men should have paid them. Also, during the Stalinist era, women were forced to enter the workforce. The percentage of women in the workforce rose; yet it did not result in liberation but increased oppression. In 1930, the Zhenotdel was abolished because it had "achieved its purpose of securing women's equality." In reality, however, the equality of women to men was far from being achieved.

II.2 Women's Participation in Politics
            Women were not legally restrained from participating in politics among men. Also, the Soviet government made efforts to mobilize women workers and peasants and organized several conferences; finally, the First All Russian Congress of Working Women was assembled in November 1918. In addition, a women's only department of the Bolshevik party, the Zhenotdel, with its publication Kommunistka, was established in 1919 by Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand. [5] Lenin tried to encourage women to participate in society to realize the ideals of the Communist State and to voluntarily work to become the ideal independent proletariat.
            The Zhenotdel, although it mainly functioned under the directions of the Bolshevik party, achieved the dramatic increase in political participation of women. It visited factories and villages, sold the Kommunistka, and organized literacy classes. Women conducted more and more conferences on their own, circulated their own journals alongside men ? the numbers of which reached almost half a million, and tried to promote education and recruitment for women. These ideas the Zhenotdel set out to realize aroused fear in the male departments of the Bolshevik party that the women may even attempt to found a party of their own.
            One policy of the Zhenotdel worthy to note is their delegate system. One woman from every town was elected as a delegate to visit and investigate places she was interested in. She was allowed access to courtrooms and even the offices of the capital if she wished. After she returned to her town with her investigation completed, she informed fellow women about what she had seen and learned from her visit. This system allowed women not necessarily of upper class to be involved in political procedures, and to understand their newly given rights. [6]

II.3 Family in Communist Russia
            The Bolsheviks were actually opposed to family itself. They thought that communism would rid the need for family as a unit of society. In their pursuit of revolutionary ideals, they often undermined the significance of family; their laws on easier divorce and legalization of abortion reflect this. They envisioned all people united as one whole family, and wished to replace women¡¯s labor in the home with communal dining halls, daycare centers and laundries. Such utopian ideals were actually transformed into legal measures to improve women¡¯s status in society.
            The family in Communist Russia was a completely different concept from the traditional family. The traditional family was generally considered to be one in which men always held the upper hand and took charge. Communists saw this as an influence of capitalism and rejected the view. Alexandra Kollontai proposed a whole new view of family as a "union of affection and comradeship," in which women and men would be equal to each other and share roles inside the family. [7] She asserted that women should no longer have to pay servitude to the men as they used to. Although her visions were very radical at the time, they were perceived as representative of the views of the Soviet leaders and people.

II.3.1 The Function of the Family in Communist Russia
            The family was considered a means to discipline and rear youths who were loyal to the state and willing to pursue its ideals. Children were not merely considered children in Communist Russia; they were considered future Soviet citizens, and their support was crucial to the success of the Bolshevik government. Therefore the Bolsheviks encouraged women to discipline the children to become loyal to the state. Women were expected, as mothers, to teach children the values of Communism.
            However, after Stalin purged the Old Bolsheviks out of the political scene, he started to oppress Bolshevism. The tightened divorce laws were purported to achieve stable social/marital relations essential to the proper upbringing of children. Individual families were expected to discipline youths so that they would not raise questions about the government and the changes it made.

II.3.2 Alexandra Kollontai's View on the Family
            Alexandra Kollontai's views on raising children are notably significant. She believed that women should perceive all children of the state as their own. In her work "Communism and the Family (1918)", she writes :

            "Henceforth the worker-mother, who is conscious of her social function, will rise to a point where she no longer differentiates between yours and mine; she must remember that there are henceforth only our children, those of the Communist State, the common possession of all the workers. [8]

            Therefore she asserts that women should become mothers of all the children in the state ? just rearing her own children was not sufficient. Here Kollontai's ideas basically represent the most radical ideologies of the Communist state: the sharing, communalizing of the responsibilities and duties of the mother that had formerly took place at home.

II.3.3 Differences between Lenin and Stalin Concerning Women
            Lenin tried to actually achieve the ideals presented by Kollontai despite the enormous economic restraints. His government founded communal cr?ches, kitchens, and organized collective childcare to take over the domestic duties of women. Although at first these institutions¡¯ efficiency was doubted, people eventually recognized the advantages of collective childcare/household work. The government seriously lacked the resources to provide services to all in need, but nevertheless continued to pursue their policies to raise the social status of women. However, later those economic restraints were used by Stalin's government to reverse the changes made during Lenin. Stalin also ousted Kollontai's utopian views.
            Stalin's bureaucracy, contrary to Lenin, thought the traditional family as the basic unit of society was useful to enforce its policies. Therefore it formulated new laws to bring that new structure back. It placed new restrictions on women¡¯s independence. First, divorce became more difficult to obtain, because marital stability was a necessity in the newly bureaucratized Soviet Union. [9] Only a few could actually afford to get a divorce because the government required payments (often enormous) for divorce. Also, abortions were abolished except for cases in which the woman's health became a problem. The government coercively instructed women that they had to learn to "enjoy motherhood." [10] This restriction on abortion was caused mainly by the shortage of labor after World War I and the civil war; its purpose was to increase the population. Women who gave birth to more than 9 children were awarded medals. Lastly, the number of communal services such as nurseries and laundries that had been provided to help women focus on their work slowly declined, causing women to be inevitably tied down at their homes.

II.4 Communist Propaganda Targeted at Women
            Communist propaganda is propaganda aimed to advance the ideology of Communism, Communist worldview and interests of the Communist movement. [11] Such propaganda was often targeted at women, to encourage them to work, participate in politics and reduce illiteracy. Women in propaganda posters often looked robust and physically similar to men - this exemplified the equality of the sexes the government was trying to achieve.

II.4.1 Encouragement of the Participation of Women in the Revolution
            At the time of the October Revolution, the participation of women in the revolution was considered crucial to its success. Propaganda often encouraged the woman to work to make the revolution a success. The picture on the right is a Communist propaganda poster from the time of the revolution. It depicts a peasant woman hauling grain, and screams : "Woman, adhere to the cooperation." [12]

II.4.2 The "Worker-Mother"
            Often women in Communist Russia were expected to work diligently at their workplaces and at the same time return home and happily care for their children and husbands at home. This model of the ideal proletariat woman was extolled in Communist propaganda. However, it was soon realized that most women were not able to attain the status of this perfect woman, and the direction of propaganda changed. Usually the women depicted in the posters were portrayed as healthy and hardworking.

II.4.3 Illiteracy
            The biggest problem in the involvement of women in political and social matters was that most women at the time were illiterate. Propaganda depicted the lives of the illiterate as unhappy and poor. One propaganda poster portrays a girl doing her homework. She says to her mother, "If you knew how to read, you could help me with this!" [13] Men were also encouraged to learn to read, but because such a large portion of the women's population was illiterate, posters often focused on women as their targets. In the poster on the right, a woman holds a book and the phrase on the poster reads : 'If you don't read books, you'll become illiterate.' [14]

III. Women's Roles in the World Wars
            Russian women, by either working to fill in the absence of men and produce military needs at the workplace or enlisting in the armed forces, contributed a great deal to the war effort during the two World Wars. These women were motivated by strong patriotism and a desire to make their marks in history, to make themselves known. [15]

III.1 World War I
            Initially, women either served in the army in small numbers or were mobilized into the workforce. However, after severe defeats at the hands of the Allied powers, more women enlisted in the army and were recruited. Eventually a Women's Battalion of Death was established with the approval of Alexander Kerensky in 1917. [16] The leading figure was Maria Botchkareva, who had requested to join the army. The Women's Battalion of Death was the most famous case of women's participation in the war. It recruited young women between the age of 13 to 25 and succeeded in enlisting approximately two thousand women. [17] Most members of the battalion were decimated during the summer offensive in 1917 against Germany. Botchkareva emphasized discipline, because the purpose of women soldiers was mainly sacrificial. She upheld moral values and upright behavior in her battalion, saying that they were to serve as examples for all the other men fighting for Russia. Several similar battalions emerged in other cities. However, many of them did not get a chance to fight in an offensive because the Bolsheviks, after the October Revolution, sent those women home. [18]
            During World War I, there was a serious lack of labor. Most men that could work had been recruited into the army and there was no one that could replace them but women. Women's participation in the war effort had many advantages, most importantly the huge influx of manpower they could provide. Although it proved difficult for women to manage to work and maintain their households at the same time, the value of their abilities was recognized by both themselves and the government. The Bolsheviks, during the Russian Revolution, admitted that women were crucial to the success of the revolution.

III.2 World War II - The Great Patriotic War
            Russian women, contrary to World War I, played a very significant part in the armed forces of the Great Patriotic War, or World War II. Unlike women of other countries, Russian women fought in actual battle instead of assisting other soldiers (although they did play auxiliary roles). Almost 800,000 women served in the army, and almost a hundred of these women received the highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union. [19] The Soviet Union is the first nation to have extensively recruited women into the armed forces. Most of the women recruited were young and childless, ranging from the age of 19 to 25.
            Russian women especially were active as pilots, the most famous being Marina Raskova. She first became a pilot and then a navigator, the first woman to do so ever. She used her personal connections with Stalin to set up female combat regiments. Apart from aviators, women were often employed by the Soviet government as snipers, the most famous being Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She is famous for having killed more than 300 enemy soldiers. Women were seen as fit for the job, because they were precise, patient and deliberate. Women also served as machine gunners and tank crew members. Women were not often on the front lines of duty, but were positioned in the rear to get men ready for combat and release them when necessary. Many women were also medical officers, nurses and technicians. [20]
            The women could serve in any position in the armed forces, but they were restricted from being promoted and seldom achieved higher ranks. Because there were smaller numbers of women in the army, consequently there were less opportunities of promotion for women. Women were prevented from acquiring the title of officer in the Soviet Union because they were not allowed to attend military colleges, which provided regular commissioning. [21]

IV. Conclusion
            Russian women during the reign of the Communists up until the Second World War, in short, were guaranteed more equality than they had ever been before in any other society. Even in democratic society they had not been on equal terms with men. In Communist Russia, their equality was proclaimed by the state openly and supported by laws. The government lacked the resources to substantially support their equality and women conventionally were still discriminated against men in many aspects in real life, but nevertheless the efforts of the Communist government resulted in the largest improvement in women's status the country had ever seen.


(1)      Pickard, 1988
(2)      ibid.
(3)      ibid.
(4)      Article: Russian Women after the Revolution, from The Feminist eZine
(5)      Article: Zhenotdel, from Wikipedia
(6)      Pickard 1988
(7)      Kagan, Ozment, Turner, 2006 p. 884
(8)      ibid. p.885
(9)      Pickard 1988
(10)      ibid.
(11)      Article: Communist Propaganda, from Wikipedia
(12)      Soviet posters, from the International Institute of Social History
(13)      Article: Soviet Propaganda Posters, from essortment
(14)      Soviet posters, from the International Institute of Social History
(15)      Goldstein, 2001
(16)      Article: Women in the Russian and Soviet military, from Wikipedia
(17)      Article: Women in the Russian and Soviet military, from Wikipedia
(18)      Goldstein, 2001
(19)      Article: Soviet Women in the Great Patriotic War, from Wikipedia
(20)      O'Brien 1982


Note : websites quoted below were visited in May-June 2008.
1.      Jen Pickard. Women in the Soviet Union (1988)
2.      Article: Russian Women After the Revolution, from: The Feminist eZine
3.      Women in Post-Revolutionary Russia: The Opportunities and Obstacles, from: 123HelpMe
4.      Early Bolshevik Work Among Women of the Soviet East, from: International Communist League
5.      Alexandra Kollontai. Communism and the Family, The Communist, 1920 from:
6.      1918 Constitution of the R.S.F.S.R, from:
7.      Mary Louise O¡¯Brien. Women and the Soviet Military, Air University Review, 1982 from: Air & Space power.
8.      Christine D. Worobec. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936, from:
9.      Article: Women's Roles in the World Wars, from: Wikipedia
10.      Article: Women in the Russian and Soviet military, from: Wikipedia
11.      Article: Soviet Women in the Great Patriotic War, from: Wikipedia
12.      Article: Zhenotdel, from: Wikipedia
13.      Article: Alexandra Kollontai, from: Wikipedia
14.      Article: Communist propaganda, from: Wikipedia
15.      Article: Family in the Soviet Union, from: Wikipedia
16.      Anna Louise Strong. Women in the Stalin era, Northstar Compass 1999 from: Hartford Web Publishing
17.      Kerry Kubilius. Soviet Women Labor Expectations, 2008 from: Suite101
18.      Article: Women¡¯s Roles in Communist Russia, from: essaypride
19.      Lenin on the 'Liberation' of Women, from: Bible Researcher
20.      Soviet Propaganda Posters, from: essortment
21.      The Era of the New Economic Policy, from: Library of Congress Country Studies, Russia
22.      Soviet Posters, from: International Institute of Social History
23.      Dave Crouch. The Reform that Failed, from: Socialist Review
24.      Joshua S. Goldstein, The Women of World War I, 2001, from: War and Gender
25.      On the Path to a Great Emancipation, Pravda, 1929, from: Women in World History
26.      Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, Frank M.Turner. The Western Heritage: 9th edition, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006.

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